It’s that same self-assurance that landed her an Emmy-winning role. “I don’t know what it is, call it ego, but I believe that I can play a lot of different kinds of women that are very different from me,” she says of her chutzpah to prove it in an audition. “I was really sick [at The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel audition], so I felt like I was pulling from the deepest, darkest parts to get it all out there,” she says, shooting upright to motion at her core. Even in this moment, as Brosnahan curls up on a Vladimir Kagan-esque serpentine sofa after four hours of wardrobe changes and photos, I catch glimpses of Midge piercing through like flashes in sharp-tongued cadence. “I was feeling so shitty that I had no choice but to lay it all on the line. I had nothing to lose by trying things I had never tried before in the room, and throwing down and walking out,” she explains. And she got it. It’s hard to imagine how executive producers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino could, or would, cast anyone else.
The actress talks fame during The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, gender equality, and philanthropy.
- Editor: Noah Lehava
- Photographer: Jake Rosenberg
- Photo Assistant: Adam Torgerson
- Director/DP: Matt Kazman
- Stylist: Carolina Orrico
- Styling Assistant: Jade Homicz
- Makeup: Lisa Aharon using Cetaphil at The Wall Group
- Hair: David Stanwell/The Wall Group for Kérastase
- Producers: Lauren Gonzalez and Monique Kamargo
- Production Assistant: Jonathan Gonzalez
When Rachel Brosnahan enters the mid-century bungalow nestled hilltop in West Hollywood, she beelines with a green smoothie in hand for a plain bagel from the pile on the catering table. She plops onto the outdoor couch in the backyard, strategically placed in the shade of the L.A. sun—I can only assume to protect her cherublike skin—tearing chunks of bread for fuel before she’s meant to head to the makeup chair. At first I expect Brosnahan to arrive with dark, impeccably glossy coiffed hair like her character Miriam “Midge” Maisel in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but she’s comfortable, undone, and recently blonde. We swap a few eBay and Depop stories and our best finds before she’s whisked away to get ready for our shoot.
As she emerges from the pink-tiled bathroom, hair slicked back, she commands the psychedelic-print Ellery top and oversized trousers, both of which are so long they hide her appendages like they’re props. “Can we play Google’s Pacific Highway playlist?” She smiles, acknowledging that her music request is very specific. But she’s in the mood.
Born in Illinois, Brosnahan grew up immersing herself in books. Her father was in publishing. “I remember pre-cell phone, the only way I could get through doctor’s appointments or shopping with my parents was to read anything that was around, like pamphlets, magazines... I didn’t care. I loved to read,” she reminisces. It’s in those pages that she developed her imagination—and her skilled linguistics, which would come in handy as Midge. During high school, she landed her first small role in Michael Bay’s The Unborn; in college in New York City, a string of roles as various “girls” she’ll joke helped her pay the rent. It was a recommendation from a studio exec, whom she remembers saying “You could be an actor in New York, but you can only make a living as an actor in L.A.” that wooed a “post-college hazed” Brosnahan to the West Coast in hopes of a big break. She lasted eight months. “I felt like time disappeared in L.A. Like I blinked and six months had gone by, and I couldn’t remember what I had done,” she says. “I started feeling a lot of pressure to look a certain way, but I couldn't have told you what that way was. I felt all this pressure and anxiety.”
It was about this time that her role on House of Cards, which turned unexpectedly into a recurring gig, and a casting in a Broadway show, kept magnetizing Brosnahan back to the East Coast. Eventually she made the move permanent.
Simultaneously, she played more women. Jolene Parker in The Blacklist, Little Allie in Orange Is the New Black, Bea Hansen in The Finest Hour, and Abby Isaacs in Manhattan. There’s a common thread, as Brosnahan points out. “I’m braver in character than I am in real life, and I think that’s something that has always attracted me to acting. I was definitely attracted to roles where the women were resilient and three-dimensional, which is harder than it sounds to find sometimes; and where they either had or were pursuing agency,” she explains. “Women who were smart in different ways and curious,” she continues. Midge may be the zenith of that. A wealthy Jewish twentysomething stay-at-home mother of two whose life is seemingly uprooted when her husband leaves her for the secretary. A moment that sets her into an alcohol-influenced impromptu 100-miles-an-hour stand-up comedy set at the Gaslight.
The show is an in-your-face display of era’d gender politics veiled in comedy—slowly chipped away, yet never full unhinged, as the seasons progress. When I ask Brosnahan, who is similar in age to me, if she was as taken aback by the glaring sexism as I was, she tells me she did a lot of research before the role. Of course she did. There were, however, a few things that surprised her, like “how outwardly and openly sexist and misogynistic people could be, and it was completely socially acceptable,” she says. “Obviously the show’s a comedy. It pokes fun at a lot of that. But I didn’t know that women couldn’t open credit cards or have bank accounts without their husbands’ approval; that there was a separate classifieds for women and almost all of those jobs were secretarial, paid a lot less, and that was OK.” The most unexpected learnings? “I’ve learned so much about underwear working on the show,” she laughs. “It’s crazy. It’s just so many bits.”
Even though it’s set 60 some odd years ago, amid its dazzle Maisel is akin to reality. “We still have a lot of work to do,” Brosnahan says when I ask her about her thoughts on the strides we’ve made in gender bias. “We’re still experiencing a wage gap. A very small percentage of the positions of influence and power at all levels are held by women, even though we [represent] more than half the [world’s population].” She acknowledges that we still have a ton of work to do culturally. “The way that we still view women as objects in both macro and micro [lenses]. Even the idea that we’re still [debating] about whether cat-calling is flattering or offensive is wild to me. We still have a bunch of older white men making decisions about women’s bodies and how we can use them and what authority we have over them in the eyes of the law.” Her words roll out one beat faster than the collective brains in the room. Again, a Midge-ism pierces out, which proves they’re tethered to one another. “I can’t wait until we can stop talking about female CEOs and female directors and female doctors.” Amen.
If Brosnahan wasn’t acting, she tells me she would be a surgeon. One that performs life-changing, industry-defining procedures. She’s always been drawn to making a difference, which is why she got involved with Global Citizen, an organization devoted to eliminating global poverty by 2030, six years ago. “There are so many different factors that contribute to the perpetuation of the cycle of poverty,” she tells me. Her intonation is intensifying in a passionate crescendo. “Things like gender inequality, education—specifically girls’ education—sanitation, access to clean water, access to medical care, data access, which helps [them] communicate between small towns and villages.” She recently went to Peru with Global Citizen in an effort to raise awareness about the need for increased funding for Education Cannot Wait—a Global Citizen partner, which focuses on, which focuses on providing resources for continued education in areas of conflict—to see firsthand the families that benefit from the first major round of funding. It’s clear, when sitting across from her, that this trip impacted her greatly. “Girls’ education and education, in general, was something that I’ve always been passionate about,” she says.
When she finally takes time for herself, amid the fanfare and hectic shooting schedule of Maisel, her upcoming role alongside Benedict Cumberbatch in Ironbark, and her philanthropic work, she unwinds with her rescue dogs and reality TV. “I watch Survivor, try to find space to put the phone down, and just be in my house with the people I love. I think my support system is a huge part of my mental health and self-care,” she shares. “Especially in the last couple of years, as things have gotten really crazy in a great way. They keep me grounded and keep me feeling sane and healthy and loved.”